Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The End of the Drought

So the Pope is about to go to Great Britain to beatify John Henry Newman, and the Holy Ghost has unlocked my wrists - so I can write after weeks of journalist's silence - and this morning at Mass he took his hands off my throat so I could at least sing Stephen Somerville's Gloria. (The rest of the music was from a book of singular wretchedness.) Somerville's piece is not great, and certainly not Gregorian, but it's light years away from that monstrosity of David Haas', brought years ago to Nelson by a former bishop.
All of this in the wake of two Saturdays of masses at  the north end of the lake, up in Sacred Heart church in Kaslo, a little town of stunning views of the Purcell Mountains and all sorts of wonderful events in my own personal history of the Kootenays, yet lacking its own resident pastor. It is thus served from Nelson, by a priest who must drive 40 miles each way. We are mightily blessed this summer with the presence of Father Matthieu Gombo Yange - not only ofm cap, but also, now, with a doctorate from the Lateran - for an entire three months. (Our regular pastor is undergoing quite extensive heart surgery.) Growing up in the western Congo - his people the Ngbaka, who left the southern Sudan in the 19th century to escape the slave traders - he is not used to our mountain roads, and especially to the bluffs at Coffee Creek, and likes company, especially company, like MT, who can share the driving responsibilities.Well, actually, he is getting better at the bluffs, but we all appreciate the opportunity to talk real theology, and share a small picnic-on-the-move on the way back.
Also, as we have discovered, the little choir in Sacred Heart likes to sing to the good old hymns, so Mass in Kaslo is something to look forward to, not an ordeal to be endured and sworn at. They are a sweet little group to sing with, and actually a bit of school for myself, for I had trouble the first week with some of the high notes, and was thus sent back to the drawing board to discover, or rather rediscover, the special qualities of the OO vowel. Given how it has to be placed in the very top centre of the hard palate to get resonance, it has a unique pedagogical function all its own. The Lord of the keyboard hasn't cared too much about my singing skills for a long time, all in the programme of getting the chops with the ivories, but now that I'm getting more and more free from the accumulated idiocies of the publishers and conservatories, and more fully understanding the force of the ancient formula - all knowledge comes through the senses - He lets the welkin under my skull from time to time actually ring.
Given the usual precision of western art and science, it becomes more and more amazing how incredibly stupid the study of fingering has become since the days when the traditional three fingers were traded in for five. That there should be wars over the obvious, once you get down to method, is ridiculous, and to hear even of concert pianists boasting that they do not use "orthodox" fingering makes one think of the men in white coats and clip boards, who actually might be a very good thing for music education.
Newman has a place in all this, because once upon a time he wrote a rather nice hymn, "Lead, Kindly Light", which I have referred to earlier, although I was only able to do so not because I had actually sung the piece, but had read of it in some note or other on England's most famous convert. I found it in the Adoremus hymnal a few days ago and, as with the choir in Kaslo and singing, quickly learned that it gave me some very nice opportunities to expand my understanding, this time of fingering. There is a frequent employment of a fifth in the left hand, for example, which is much the best served by using the thumb with the index, something I had never really explored before. This coincided nicely with the insights I have picked up from the summer's work with the Moonlight Sonata, leading to some very nice drills in sixths and fifths in either hand. A little organizing and you get a very lovely drill in four part harmony, as a local writer of some substance discovered the other day when she dropped by to deliver some copies of her latest to my wife.
"That sounds pretty," she said to Marianne when she answered the door.
"Just Ken's scale studies,"  said MT.
I should add that these fifths and sixths are made entirely with the index and little finger, thus providing a good study in the stretching that C.P.E Bach insists should begin as soon as possible. A lot of my anxieties have come in past years in not clearly understanding how the stretching can be graded in over the developing years from childhood up and at the same time provide clear instruction in the grasp of the numbers and the solfage. The anxieties have passed.
Back to work with Tim McDaniel yesterday, and I was delighted to see that he now has a five octave keyboard. He is thus the first student to tuck into the four notes at a time, over a two-octave spread, programme, and he not only ate it up, but loved the sound. The teacher was also pleased to see that he is soundly locked into feeling his way entirely by the numbers.
And, as the explorer keeps finding out, there is an anomaly or two in all this. While the fifths and sixths work infallibly with what I call fixed distance fingering as long as the patterns are completely uniform, that is, fifths only in the left, and sixths only in the right, as soon as the pianist applies a routine to ensure just major, or just minor, scales, for the best sound he suddenly needs a fourth when setting up the harmony for the third note of the scale. Thus, five - one in the left, with five - three in the right. Tim hasn't had this one yet, but he'll love it when we get to it. Teaching an engineer is a study in intelligent design, of the mind as well as of creation.
Will the British be as docile, so open to the higher science, that Benedict is about to bring them?
And then there was last week's  music lesson with Father Matthieu, on the rectory piano. Being raised in the former Belgian Congo, where the imported language is French, he has a grasp of solfage, which gives him a leg up on the Prussian mentality of the letters, and as I trashed the brown book - which I had in tow - and explained the massive printing options of its successors, I would seemed to have received the blessing of the always very practical as well as spiritual Franciscan mind set.
There is something enormously powerful in that two-octave drill, although I've only slightly begun to tap into it, and am far from having it capture all the modes and keys. But the day is coming.